Liberating myself from racist animal slurs by invoking the pure souls of the animals themselves

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The caged bird sings with a fearful trill

  • Sriram Ananth (sriram.writing@gmail.com)

I have been called more animal slurs than I can remember ever since I moved to North America a dozen years ago. Generally those slurs include variations of primates, and sometimes even canines. Greetings like “sand monkey”, “Indian dog”, even “Paki cur” (or it might have been “Paki cunt” in which case I have been ascribing a touch more linguistic depth to the humans who choose to use these monikers than I need to). Also “big ape”, “ugly gorilla”, “fucking chimp” and more. Occasionally, other animals will be invoked. This one time in Toronto’s gay village I was called a “hot and spicy bear” if I’m remembering correctly, and another time in Boston I was called “the great Indian bull” (these last two slurs I think were meant to be exotic compliments by heavily deluded, older white men who were of the belief that their gayness excused them from a basic sense of humanity.)

This is, of course, in addition to the usual smatterings of other non-animal slurs. I often project an ambiguous ethnicity on the streets, so a fairly broad gamut of slurs periodically come my way.

Now, I don’t wish to project this as a daily occurrence, or even a very frequent one, depending on your definition of an acceptable frequency for folks to face this. (I’m one of those saps who thinks once is too many, but to each their own.)

Of course, barring loved ones and genuine friends, a lot of people who don’t face these kinds of slurs tend to be surprised that “this shit still happens?” when I tell them about these experiences.

Be that as it may, over the last many years, I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been called some slur or the other in various parts of the US and Canada. After the first fifty or so times, one just blurs it out.

Now, I have found some awesome ways to liberate myself from the clearly dehumanizing intent of all those microaggressions. I’ve already written about how, ultimately, those who oppress or benefit from said oppression are the ones who are dehumanized, and not the ones the oppressive attacks are directed at. So I won’t belabor that point.

But what about also invoking the awe-inspiring pure souls of the animals themselves to liberate ourselves from the ugly manner in which they are twisted into dehumanizing slurs?

It worked wonders for me.

Equally importantly, it led me on a path of slowly destroying my anthropocentrism. It showed me that there was just as much love and liberation, if not more, that one could find with non-human souls as one could with human ones.

(Frankly, I’m seriously thinking of going the other direction and considering misanthropy as a solid life philosophy to incorporate – or maybe just misandry, considering women and trans folk are the only saving grace for humanity. But I think it might be best to keep the therapeutic rage for a later time.)

So let’s talk a bit about liberating ourselves by invoking the amazingly pure souls of the animals, who are unfortunately being dragged into this racism and colonialism nonsense for no fault of theirs.

But I’m not going to do it by addressing the slurs hurled at me in America and Canada. It’s easy to do that. Plus there are many eager liberals who will queue up to condemn those slurs and I don’t really feel like making myself angry right now.

Instead, what I would like to talk about is a body-image slur I faced when I was a kid, because that’s where this healing technique really began for me. Without realizing it, I used this very technique to liberate myself from the constant teasing around my pudginess when I was a kid. And when I recount that episode, it becomes easy to do it as an adult, which I hope you can as well should you ever need this technique.

In this case, i.e. my generously layered pre-teenage years, the animal used to tease me was the awe-inspiring, soul-liberating, elephant – one of my spirit animals. So, I’m going to first talk a bit about how that took place. Because it helped me many, many years later when the monkey/dog slurs were hurled at me.

Ok here goes.

So, I was a pudgy kid.

That much you have gathered.

And I got teased a lot. Don’t worry, I’m not going to dump all of my awkward insecurities on you with this article (that’s what I have my cats for). But I will have to recount some of those ego-busting moments, so try to not shuffle your feet too much.

Among the usual monikers, was your basic, never-going-out-of-style “fatty” in a variety of languages. The linguistic medium and environment of my childhood was a gorgeous mix of English, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, Urdu, and Malayalam across friends and family, with the odd bit of Telugu and Bengali thrown in for good measure (usually in the form of crude jokes we would make of our friends who spoke those languages – yo, we all did it to each other).

Needless to say, the number of ways in which you can be teased also gets that rich linguistic and cultural diversity. From being compared to a variety of large, bulbous fruits native to the respective regions that my tormentors hailed from, to just being made fun of via a particular cultural or even religious trope, I heard it all.

When you come from a land that has every religion on the planet, including one that boasts over 3000 gods, chances are that there are some fairly plump ones too, such as Ganesh, the elephant god of goodness, knowledge, and other such desirable life entities.

Growing up, I hated his guts.

Because each god in Hinduism has umpteen different monikers and stories which – in Ganesh’s case – meant umpteen different ways of teasing us fat kids.

However, the one ubiquitous mode of teasing us across linguistic and cultural differences was to be compared to the (ahem, in reality, heavily muscled but admittedly good-personality-possessing) elephant.

We were in India after all.

The elephant.

What an amazing being with such a beautiful, liberated soul.

I realized that when, as a pudgy kid, I was on this trip to Guruvayoor, a small Hindu pilgrimage town, famous for the massive temple honoring the lord Guruvayurappan, a Tamil and Malalayalam moniker – and thus a naturally more tongue-tying one – for Vishnu, one of the dudes in the Hindu holy trinity.

(But one of the meh, not-so-cool, ones. Not like the awesome bad ass – Shiva.)

So there I was in Guruvayoor, placing various gods on a hierarchy of coolness, for this annual pilgrimage that my parents really liked taking. We always drove from Bangalore. I loved those trips because we all got to drive through Kerala, one of the gorgeous coastal states of the land and consisting about 60% of my roots, primarily on my mother’s side (tongue-twisters all).

When I became 18 and somehow connived to get a driver’s license (despite the testing officer’s eyeballs nearly popping out of his socket and chastising me for driving so rashly), I got to hone my driving skills under the patient tutelage of my father during the many road trips we took – the one to Guruvayoor always being among the most picturesque.

It was in Guruvayoor that I first met, soul to soul, an elephant. I was about 10 years old and it was the briefest of meetings, just long enough for a picture to be taken.

She was a kid elephant that the mahout (elephant man) told me was slightly younger than me in terms of our respective stages of childhood.

She looked at me and I looked at her. I felt her tough hide, with hair that stuck out like the sharp bristles of a brush. I felt her majestic breathing. She turned her face slightly, and grunted softly in friendship. Her trunk lightly enveloped my hips, not holding it tightly, but what felt more like a friendly, loving arm around my torso, except from a limb that could have crushed me with ease. Even as a child, she still had a raw power that I could barely contain my awe of.

But the tingle that went up my spine wasn’t due to her physical strength.

Like I said.

Soul to soul.

It was then that I realized a very simple truth that liberated me from the supposed slur of being compared to an elephant.

This being had a soul far purer than any of my tormentors.

Oh hell yeah.

I dug being compared to an elephant.

Or a dog for that matter. Or a monkey, a cat, a bear, a crow, a bull, or any other animal soul out there that we humans dare to invoke with our hateful misogyny, our racist bile, and our colonial entitlement.

Because if there are still people who think animal slurs can be used to hurt women, or people of color, or trans folk, or indigenous people – those hate-mongers should know this very simple truth:

Invoking the pure souls of animals liberates us and defeats the hatred.

In fact, I just realized something else…

We’re also happier as a result.

Purrr…

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Bubbles, the awesome tabby who ushered in the sweet demise of my anthropocentrism.

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In the late fall of 2011, on a weekday evening in central Toronto, as the crisp cold was settling in to lay the foundation for the dreary winter to follow, I trudged back home from my then day job as a case manager and counsellor with a non-profit organization that supported marginalized folk with health advocacy, holistic care, housing, and community support. Only this time, I had a little friend with me.

His name was Bubbles, a cute, adult tabby with a beautiful disposition and he was the first non-human to teach me a little something about love that crossed the species barrier and ultimately helped break down my hitherto obdurate anthropocentrism.

He was with us for only one week, but I think it’s safe to say that he stole my heart during that relatively short period. The fact that I have to fight back tears each time I think about him has pushed me to accept that I fell head over heels in love with him.

And yes, I’m talking about a cat here.

Bubbles belonged to one of our clients in the organization I worked in. This client, like a lot of marginalized people, had to deal with the machinations of the criminal justice system and he requested us to take care of the cat while he was doing so. I volunteered because my soul mate, Susanne, and I were toying with the idea of getting a cat ourselves (we ultimately got two, and goodness are they two of the most awesome creatures on earth). I thought it would be fun to have Bubbles for a while, especially as my colleague said that it was likely we could actually adopt Bubbles since the client was thinking that he wasn’t in a place to take care of another living thing.

So Bubbles joined Sus and me in the little one-bedroom apartment we had rented for a year in a somewhat rundown Regent Park high-rise. He stayed with us for a week.

Now if this was a mushy Hollywood movie or HBO show, it might have something special happen here. You know, some awesome life-changing experience that Bubbles was an inherent part of, but the truth is that the week Bubbles was with us was no different than any other week during the time we were in that neighborhood. I went to work. Sus went to grad school. We dealt with life and sustenance, while partaking in various daily activities, some for socializing, some for social justice, some for sanity. Bubbles just happened to be there in our small 1-bedroom apartment that week.

He ate the food we got him.

He bathed himself with that rough tongue he had.

He climbed on the counters.

He cuddled and purred.

He peed and took shits in his litter box (Sus even commented on how neat he was, partitioning his litter box so tidily and all).

One time I looked at him and said, “hey there, sweet little buddy” and, I swear, he looked at me and smiled.

I was beginning to get positively giddy at the thought of permanently adopting this awesome tabby.

And then the week ended and I was informed that the client still wanted the cat. Understandable. Except that now my heart was going to be shattered to pieces. I just didn’t know it yet.

I took Bubbles back to our office. During the journey he meowed and meowed and I have no way of explaining exactly what happened to me each time I heard him. Every meow pierced me with an emotion I had never experienced before. My throat would tighten a fraction more. My spirit would sink a touch lower. My heart would crack a tad further.

I admonished myself, “Sri! It’s a cat for crying out loud.” I told myself. “You have known this dude for one week. Get over yourself you idiot. There is no way you could possibly have feelings for a cat like it’s a human being!”

When we reached the office, it was late evening and no one was around. My colleague was to take him back the next day. I let him out of his carrier and sat with him for a little while. Just me and him in that small dingy office. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to. After settling down, he approached me once more, nuzzling me in that friendly yet gorgeously subtle way that only cats have mastered.

That was when I knew that I had to leave. If I didn’t leave that very moment, I would have kidnapped him and quit my job. Maybe Sus, Bubbles and I would have checked out of the city so we would never be apart again.

But I couldn’t do that. It wasn’t my style.

Before leaving, I did look at Bubbles one last time and say (for the first time ever to a non-human):

“I love you little fella.”

I thought I was saying it just for the heck of it. But I said it silently, so that no one would overhear by mistake and think I was crazy, despite the fact that no one was there. I think I did it because I realized the feeling was far truer and stronger than I was willing to accept. I said it scarcely believing that I said it myself (“Seriously dude…did you just profess your love for a freaking cat?” I admonished myself again after leaving.)

I came back home and I was somewhat upset, but not even in the slightest bit inconsolable or anything. Told Sus and a couple of friends that I was hurt at having to give back the cat. But that was it.

You just miss that little fella, I thought to myself, no big deal. So I buried it and didn’t think about it for quite a while.

But try as I could, Bubbles never left my heart. God, that sounds corny, but I don’t yet possess the writing skills to be able to say it in a more nuanced way. He just kind of remained there in the background.

Many months later, well after Sus and I adopted our own two little feline darlings, I found out that Bubbles ended up in an SPCA in some suburb of Toronto, Oakville I think. When my colleague informed me of the news, I expressed a little sadness but nothing more than anyone would express. I put it out of my mind.

I kept finding myself in a position of having to make a real effort to not think about Bubbles. But I always succeeded. For a couple of years Bubbles just lurked somewhere at the back of my mind, not really coming to the fore. Business as usual I figured.

Something happened to me however in those two years.

I found myself falling in love across species again. This time with Faiz and Rumi. Through the fun of occasionally irritating growing pains from kitten to cat. Through the naughtiness and goofiness of their existence. Through their remarkable innocence and purity of affection. Through seeing their souls and realizing that evil cannot and does not exist there, or in the souls of any other animal for that matter. Through understanding that humans aren’t the fucking centre of the universe and that one doesn’t have to choose between the liberation of humanity and the liberation of all other beings.

Hell of a cool journey right?

But it wasn’t complete. I hadn’t yet acknowledged a certain little fella. But that would change eventually.

What I would eventually find out was that Bubbles was the catalyst for it. I would also find out that my heart was and always would be broken, and that’s ok. All those realizations happened about a month back, some time in Jan 2015.

By then, Sus and I had moved into a small 1-bedroom condo we bought (or rather have a 25 year mortgage for, thus actually owning an area covered by about three and a half bathroom tiles). Sus had a new laptop and, in the process of shifting the photographs from her previous computer to the new one, found a somewhat grainy picture of me and Bubbles. She showed it to me just as a little fun discovery.

And that’s when all that stuff I buried came rushing back. The fact that he stole my heart. The fact that I was still in love with that cat. The fact that I missed him. The fact that I always would.

I cried. Literally broke down like a toddler. I cried when I saw the photograph. I cried when I spoke to Sus about it. I cried when I spoke to Sus and another friend about it. I cried when I sat on my own and thought about him. I have not stopped crying during the entire writing of this article.

You see, I don’t know where Bubbles is.

Maybe he’s with a loving family, living out the rest of his years in comfort and contentment.

Or maybe he’s with a not-so-loving family, living out the rest of his years facing neglect and abuse.

Or maybe he’s with a family that is loving but also has its problems, so he’s getting a bit of both.

Or maybe he’s dead, likely euthanized for space.

Or maybe he’s free, out on the streets and parks, making friends (and enemies) with feral felines, living of the critters and birds he catches.

I don’t know. And it kills me every time I think about.

But I do know this:

In some alternate universe, Bubbles is still with us, me and Sus, and our other two non-human loved ones, Faiz and Rumi, and our ever-growing community of human loved ones in Bangalore, Minneapolis, Toronto, and who knows where else (it’s an alternate universe, so maybe we have loved ones in Havana, which would be awesome). Bubbles is part of this family, our community, in this alternate universe.

You will notice that I said this like I actually believe it. It’s not said in jest. I actually do.

Yes, I know it sounds crazy, and hence by logic of inference, I sound crazy. It’s ok. I don’t actually know if there’s some alternative universe where Bubbles is with us. I just believe it.

I often do that in order to bring comfort, continuity, and cyclical resurgence to loss. For instance, I don’t need to necessarily know for sure whether or not the spirit of my dead brother is with me, hanging out with me, growing with me as I journey through this world. I love him and I miss him. Thus I believe he’s still with me, even after more than a decade has passed since his departure from this world. I believe it with just as much fervor as I believe in evolution, emancipation, and equality.

I still can’t quite place why I love and miss Bubbles to the point where it hurts. Partly I think it has to do with my dead brother. He was a lover of humanity, animals, nature, and peace, and I think my connection with Bubbles and subsequent non-human loved ones is a result of my brother teaching me something from beyond this world. Partly I think it has to do with the fact that my anthropocentrism never quite fit with my desire for freedom, equality, and sustainable living. Loving animals, falling in love with those who get close to you, is just so much more liberating for the soul. Partly I think it has to do with the fact that I have been prevented in some way or the other by the prevailing structures and institutions of the world around us from ever seeing Bubbles again. Love is particularly painful when you have to wait for your time on this earth to end in order to be able to see that human or non-human being you are in love with.

But it’s all good. Really.

I’m glad I have this pain, because I’m also surrounded by love, human and non-human, across many oceans, and this pain just makes me realize how all the more precious it is. Bubbles stole my heart and taught me about love so effortlessly that I believe we’re still hanging out in some alternate universe with us. You don’t have to believe me, just hear the story, because it’s not about me. It’s about Bubbles, the awesome tabby who ushered in the sweet demise of my anthropocentrism.